Recession is forging unlikely alliances

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The simple sectarian politics of old is gradually being changed by the harsh realities of recession, says OWEN POLLEY

YOU could have been forgiven for feeling a little disorientated by the budget debate which began on Friday and raged all day Wednesday.

Assembly members were scarcely in their seats on Friday before an approving Sammy Wilson quoted John Rawls, the American philosopher who put the bleeding heart into modern liberalism.

Was this the same Sammy who loved to confound preachy environmentalists with his un-PC rants about climate change, or had the morning coffee not yet kicked in? No, it was one and the same!

In Wednesday’s mammoth debate, the finance minister went on to accuse SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie of resembling Margaret Thatcher politically. The DUP considers itself a “low tax, centre right“ party, but any comparison to the Conservative free traders’ hero is a grievous insult.

Ritchie herself coined the phrase “Sinn Féin Tories” to imply that the republican party is colluding in British government cuts.

Liberal Dupers, Tory Shinners — anything’s possible at Stormont nowadays. It’s like a political twilight zone where nothing is quite as it seems.

During the whole protracted wrangle over the draft budget — and Wednesday’s seven-hour marathon capped off a process which started in mid-December — the DUP and Sinn Féin acted almost as one.

As a bloc, their MLAs backed Sammy Wilson’s figures and as a bloc they rose to admonish the UUP and SDLP for their scepticism.

Not only did these once intractable enemies defy the odds and agree an economic plan, they cooperated to sweep aside opposition from fellow unionist and nationalist parties.

You might not like the substance of the budget, but it’s difficult to disagree with the finance minister’s assessment that it marks a defining moment for Northern Ireland’s politics. It looks like our political landscape is slowly changing.

Things will certainly revert back to normal for a while, as the campaign for May’s election gets under way. Sinn Féin will exhort nationalists to make it the biggest party.

The DUP will counter by claiming unionists should vote for it to prevent Martin McGuinness becoming first minister.

The two parties will tear strips off one another.

Then, unless there’s a seismic shift in voting patterns, they will return to Stormont and business as usual.

At the moment that looks more and more like a two party coalition — or three if you count a quiescent Alliance justice minister — while the UUP and SDLP look more and more like an opposition.

There’s nothing wrong with that arrangement per se. The DUP and Sinn Fein can jointly claim a mandate from a resounding majority of Northern Ireland voters. They are more than entitled to pursue any common objectives.

In the new assembly it will be more interesting to see whether the UUP and SDLP can move from acting like an opposition to actually forming one.

Although the two parties threatened to pull their ministers out of the executive this time, ultimately both stopped short. They will be asked searching questions about the consistency of that position as the election campaign progresses.

Michael McGimpsey and Danny Kennedy, the UUP’s executive members, voted explicitly against the budget. Alex Attwood, the SDLP’s social development minister, simply absented himself from the chamber, in order to avoid breaking the assembly’s ministerial code.

It’s an odd way of doing business. But then the system of government in Northern Ireland is a strange system. On the one hand the smaller parties say their voices aren’t heard in the supposed five-party coalition.

On the other hand, the larger parties claim that the UUP and SDLP are prepared to accept the trappings of power, but refuse to take responsibility for taking the difficult decisions.

Neither argument is without merit. But ironically it is the black cloud of recession which might offer a silver lining for Stormont.

Since the financial crisis, the old sectarian wrangles have receded into the background, while the economy — the focus of normal politics — has taken centre stage.

The budget exchanges at Stormont were venomous and they expose some deep political divisions, but for once those divisions aren’t along traditional lines.

The debate was certainly a depressing spectacle at times. There were some poor quality speeches and our parties are still desperately confused about where they stand on the left — right spectrum.

Still, while the parties inevitably resort to age-old antipathies come election time, there are new interests and alliances coming to the fore in the assembly.

Something resembling real politics is threatening to break out. The power-sharing structures may soon need to change in order to catch up.